UDPATE: As of March 2014, the wonderful era of Incanto closes its chapter. They are remodeling the space and opening up a brand new eatery. Stay tuned for updates when I visit!
For the last four months, I’ve had to eat at some of San Francisco’s best and most unique places to review for inclusion in my upcoming book. Having eaten out for countless meals, sometimes up to four sit-down meals per day, it’s all a bit hazy now as things begin to settle around me. But the best ones stand out still; it always amazes me how months or even years after a good meal, I will be able to draw up the exact taste and experience in my mind when I first came face to face to with a fabulous meal–more amazing when I admit that I can’t recall someone I met last week or what I wore to work yesterday, but food – I remember. I guess it’s no surprise I write about food.
Located in Noe Valley, Incanto is housed in a really hip and classically designed location that exudes style but keeps comfort at hand. With dark woods and large windows, the ambiance is a tablecloth short of “high-end” dining. Walking in, I was surprised and taken aback as any place with an “offal specialty”, I expect to look somewhat shabbier — appropriate to serving the innards of animals, I guess? Or perhaps it’s just one of my misconceptions!
But on the contrary, Incanto is beautiful all around and offers nicely spaced tables, ideal for private conversations and long meals with good wines and good friends.
Once seated and the menus were provided to us, I was most surprised by the lack of offal meat on the menu. There were some between the menu and the blackboard specials — but there was so much more to this menu than just liver, heart, kidneys, intestines and animal feet!
You see, for this “eat for the book” expedition, I organized meal after meal with friends. For many meals, the demand was higher than the supply, and for most, I could schedule out countless meals for a month with groups of six or more. My invite to Incanto, however, yielded only two friends who said they would join me. The main reason given was that the others weren’t into “offal”.
While Chef Chris Cosentino is known for and associated with offal meat, Incanto is so much more than just that, and offers a wide array of food that contain nothing even remotely offal-esque. Instead, the menu is distinctly Italian. His cooking takes risks that pay off, and each thing you order is a unique introduction to a combination of ingredients or a style of presentation that is rarely offered with that particular item. Course after course, your palate evolves and your culinary knowledge expands.
Take for instance, the lamb tartare:
I love a medium-rare to completely rare lamb, and I’m even one to appreciate some gaminess in the meat when paired with the right sauce, side, or a good complementary wine. But never have I tried to eat lamb raw – and when it was on Incanto’s blackboard, there was no doubt I’d be ordering this.
I admit it–I’m one of those people that really have a hard time not chowing on a couple slices when faced with a fresh and beautiful cut of meat. Long before the USDA decided it was okay to cook pork to a medium-rare 145 degrees, I *might* have been doing this all along. (Live dangerously – I’m a rebel, yeah.) I’m also one to devour Torisashi or Toriwasa, when offered by some awesome eateries in Japan — which is basically raw chicken sashimi or seared chicken that is completely raw on the inside, respectively. But lamb, I had not tried until Incanto.
Dare I say it, this tartare was more flavorful, light and pleasant in texture than any beef tartare I’ve had in recent years. With notes of mint and floral aromas throughout, it brought out the subtle flavors of lamb, going down as perhaps my favorite raw dish in the city.
When sweetbreads are offered on any menu, I’m compelled to try it. Cooked just right, Incanto’s dish is presented free of any heavy sauces that mask the light and earthy flavors of this organ meat, and paired with adequately seasoned potatoes, this is a good appetizer to begin your meal with at Incanto. While it is an organ meat, technically, it’s also as regularly found in San Francisco, and many people have learned to appreciate sweetbreads over the last few years.
But I can’t come to Incanto, a place so commonly associated with odd animal parts, and not try something a bit more risque.
Knowing me, if they had offered 10 different parts on this evening, I’d have ordered 10 different parts and tried them all. On this evening, the sweetbreads and “deep-fried calf brain” were the only two offal-like offerings, so I opted for both. This dish, however, did test even my limits, and I can make Andrew Zimmern’s appetite pale in comparison sometimes!
It wasn’t that it tasted bad–it was that brain, on its own, say — outside of a burrito — is incredibly rich and heavy. I truly appreciated the simple presentation, void of heavy and pungent sauces to mask the taste of this truly interesting meat, but thankfully, three people shared this starter that contained three thick slices of, well, brain. I am all for gluttony but I’d be really impressed if one person could finish off all three pieces.
To the left is a slice of my piece. The texture inside is much like silken/soft tofu; if it were void of all taste, I would have a hard time distinguishing it from tofu. But this doesn’t taste like soy–the flavor is overpoweringly creamy, and rich, and I’ll confess that knowing this soft and slightly mushy texture that I was chewing on was the thinking organism of a cow at some point really didn’t help with the swallowing. The taste of the brain was actually quite delicious–it was just a mind over matter issue, and paired with the heavy flavors of this organ, I was rather happy that I only had one chunk. In terms of heaviness, this dish was comparable to bone marrow, if not heavier and definitely creamier — and made me want to puree it down, and spread it over brioche – perhaps with some fruit or something sweet on top to break up the richness and take turns on the palate. One friend ate one quarter; the other friend ate half –and I, given that I do have a reputation to maintain of eating ridiculously odd foods, finished most of mine except for one small bite.
And then, Chef Cosentino blew my mind with the next dish.
Freshly made spaghettini pasta was served with shavings of cured tuna heart that covered a perfect egg yolk sitting atop the pasta. The balance between the taste of flour in the pasta with the saltiness of the cured heart, butter and the creaminess offered by the egg yolk as it coats the entire dish once popped is a perfect ensemble of flavors.
So much so, that I now have the honor of including the recipe to this dish in my book, The Food Lovers’ Guide to San Francisco, thanks to the chef and also the wonderful co-owner, Mark Pastore. (Thank you, Mark!)
For this dish, the ink was blended into the pasta. As of late, I haven’t found any place that uses actual squid ink on pasta as sauce, but rather in this style. I’m guessing it’s perhaps people aren’t too keen on having their tongue and teeth turn black with the ink sauce? While this is not my favorite style of presentation, I found it to be absolutely thrilling in flavors at Incanto. Again, the pasta itself was fresh and the ink provided further depth to each bite. The fennel provided very light notes of anise-like aromas, while the pickled peppers were quite impressively spicy and packed a punch to the sauce and overall dish.
The sardines were offered up as an entree and it was a nice change from the pastas; the fish was fresh and though the tails being pulled through the mouths looked rather painful, it was a gorgeous presentation at the same time. Unusually large and meaty, these were local sardines–much as one would expect from Chef Cosentino who has become well-known for using local ingredients whenever possible, and in line with wasting no part of any animal, the entire fish was presented whole. I, of course, devoured mine down to the eyeballs. The meat was delicate with minimal fishiness, and it was ideal to be shared by the three people at this meal.
Last but not least was the Pork Shoulder entree which was rather hefty in portion. The braised meat fell apart easily in large strips and each bite yielded great moistness and flavor. The slices of fresh, warm peaches paired beautifully with the pork, and the greens added the ideal amount of bitter to the sweet and savory combination.
It’s not often that this happens but in one meal, Incanto catapulted itself into one of my favorite restaurants in the city. The menu is interesting and a great combination of classics and unusual twists. If the main ingredient is not offal, then it’s cooked in a unique way or paired with something unusual; if the main ingredient is a bit more on the bizarre end of things, it’s served in such a way that the the ingredient’s attributes are not hidden and masked, but enhanced. After all, we don’t eat offal to have it taste like normal parts–we eat it to experience exactly what kidneys, hearts or other odd parts of an animal taste like.
Most surprising to me was how amazing the pasta is at Incanto. Every pasta offering is homemade and fresh and just like Chef Cosentino does with offal, the way in which he serves the pasta is meant to highlight the flavor of the pasta rather than to cover it up with whatever sauce is used. The tuna heart pasta was about as great as you could ever hope from any pasta dish in existence. THAT GOOD.
The service at Incanto is nice and combined with the gorgeous space, it easily makes my list of date locations in the city. This is a complete foodie joint where anyone who loves food and trying new things is bound to find something worth talking about while dining here.
Just because the chef is commonly associated with offal doesn’t mean that the regular animal parts aren’t served here; I think that’s a huge misconception about Incanto! With a good wine list and fair prices — everyone should give this place a try.
It ain’t your regular Italian restaurant; it’s really so much more.
Call the restaurant or visit the website for details about the “Leg of Beast” dinner where an enormous beef shank is braised to fall right off the bone, and is the highlight of a 3-course dinner meant for six to eight people. This usually requires one-week notice.
Or, you can stand in line right behind me for a chance at joining in on Incanto’s annual “Head to Tail” dinner in March where all types of animal parts are served, prepared to highlight everything wonderful about that particular part of the animal. This event has my name written all over it come 2012.
Incanto is located at 1550 Church Street in San Francisco, and is open for business from Wednesdays to Mondays, and closed on Tuesdays. You can call to make reservations, or utilize Urbanspoon on this page to make online reservations.
Addictive Factor: 8/10
Overall Rating: 8.4/10
Grace Keh is the author of "Food Lovers' Guide to San Francisco" and the critic, editor and photographer behind San Francisco Food. In her regular day job, she consults for corporate clients in marketing and event strategy. Once the sun sets, she's on the hunt for great food in what she considers to be one of the world's greatest cities, San Francisco.